… seemed, to me for many years, that an actor of perceptibly limited range and skills starred in some of the best films made by two of the best directors in the history of Hollywood.
The two directors are John Ford and Howard Hawks and the actor is John Wayne.
Even Wayne’s greatest fans have usually conceded that he had a rather wooden performing style, perhaps comparable to recent stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Yet not only did he have a long and successful career, he starred in several films which are generally regarded as among the best directed by Ford ( Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and by Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo).
Wayne is most often remembered as a Western hero, for example a sheriff or a US Cavalry officer. Alternatively he is a fighter on land or sea in other 20th century combat zones. His persona is not always a figure of official authority but certainly a man whose leadership skills are respected by others. He is not usually an ordinary man mixed up in difficult or dangerous events : invariably he is in command of the situation, and often hired to deal with that situation. The narratives of his films are usually straightforward in style and tone, and any comic situations he appears in are broad and sentimental such as in The Quiet Man. Unlike Cary Grant and James Stewart, he did not diversify into film noir or into more ironic material. Playing Genghis Khan or a minor Roman soldier was definitely untypical.
One reason that my favourite Wayne film is Ford’s Fort Apache is because the narrative does not centre around his cavalry officer character. He is part of some good ensemble playing but the film is certainly dominated by Henry Fonda’s arrogant commander. However, I do share the popular admiration for his complex leading role as the less admirable ex-soldier looking for his niece in Ford’s The Searchers, which has become more highly regarded in recent years, exemplified by its rise in the American Film Institute best films list from number 96 in 1998 to 12 in 2007. That shift in critical reputation is similar to that enjoyed by James Stewart’s performance in Vertigo and, by dual coincidence, The Searchers was made at almost exactly the same time and Wayne’s character is as driven, obsessed and unpleasant as are many of Stewart’s characterisations of that era.
Wayne played old men for both Hawks and Ford practically back to back in the late 1940s, in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, although later, like many big stars, his roles were more suited to younger actors. However, his last performance, in Don Siegel’s The Shootist playing a gunman dying of cancer when he was in a similar situation himself, is one of quiet dignity and makes you wonder whether, if he had worked with Don Siegel more often in his later years, that would have been more artistically fruitful relationship than those with more gung-ho action film-makers like Andrew V. McLaglen.
It is often said that the characters in Hawks films are small, ad-hoc groups of disparate individuals thrown together by circumstance. As David Boxwell summarises in Senses of Cinema, they deal with “the primacy of the group over the individual; the value of male bonding through rivalry or through rite of passage; the elevation of male communities validated by codes of ethics and professionalism; the potential for women to gain access to male groups in unconventional ways”.
Although his films often feature men of action, Hawks tends to give less prominence to landscapes, whereas Ford films, according to Richard Franklin in Senses of Cinema, feature “ the individual dwarfed by (the) landscape, of family and community huddled against (its) brutality”. Ford’s expansive location exteriors of the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley, on the border of Arizona and Utah, are an instantly recognisable part of many of his famous Westerns.
While the idea of the group struggling against the landscape certainly fits many Ford Westerns like Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master and The Searchers, you might argue that, following the Boxwell description, the motley group of characters in Stagecoach is bonded together by circumstance just as much as in a Hawks film like Rio Bravo. However, this may prove merely that in any director’s oeuvre (and Ford directed over 140 films, with Hawks’ total a still significant 47), some works will always escape easy categorisation and stereotype.
Of course John Wayne is hardly the only actor who made many films with particular directors. Hawks made several films with Cary Grant, both comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday and the drama Only Angels Have Wings. Ford famously had a stock company of supporting players led by Ward Bond, and several other highly regarded films starred Henry Fonda, like The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine. The practice has continued in recent decades : Martin Scorsese has worked frequently with Robert De Niro and latterly with Leonardo De Caprio, Tim Burton has regularly cast Johnny Depp. Modern critics have sometimes taken to using the term “muse”, although you can’t imagine it a word which Ford or Hawks, both men born in the 19th century,would have been comfortable with!
So how to explain the regular and central casting of Wayne by Ford and Hawks? Perhaps it was just good luck for Wayne? Hollywood film-making in his era was such a huge business, and populated by so many different individuals, some serious artists, some interested only in money, most interested in both together or somewhere in between : it was able to accommodate every type of product and every type of actor from the Shakespearean specialist to the sports star, of which Wayne was definitely more in the latter camp. He was lucky that he worked in the era when the actors became the stars and adored by fans, whereas those other people behind the scenes, the writers and cinematographers and producers and directors, were often the superior craftsmen and artists.
However, if you accept that Wayne deserves some credit for his fame, you might deduce that his rugged, plain-speaking, unsophisticated persona, honed by work in 70 films before his star-making turn in Stagecoach, was what Ford and Hawks were looking for in those dramas of adventurers, pioneers and land-builders.
So perhaps not so much a mystery – just one of the many intriguing stories from Hollywood’s Golden Age.